Do the roots of Republican Scott Brown’s shocking win on Tuesday go back to August? Is the White House paying the price for ignoring, and even mocking, grassroots anger that was obvious in the summer?
“This is manufactured anger,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Aug. 4, responding to angry outbursts at town hall forums with members of Congress.
The Democratic National Committee went on to label outraged citizens “mobs.” Democrats and liberals referred derisively to Tea Party protesters as “teabaggers,” many of them fully aware they were using a term describing a sexual act.
Now, some say, it’s taken a voter revolt in one of the country’s most liberal and most reliably Democratic states to shock those in power and let them know the country doesn’t like the direction President Obama is taking it.
“This is a huge wake-up call for the Obama administration,” said Andrew Card, former White House chief of staff to President George W. Bush.
Ron Kaufman, a senior Republican strategist and Washington lobbyist involved with Scott Brown’s renegade campaign for the senate, said Democrats “missed the anger and they came across as arrogant.”
Mitt Romney, the Republican former governor of Massachusetts, called the Obama administration “neomonarchists in Washington who think that government is smarter than the people.”
Even some Democratic senators were agreeing Tuesday night, following Brown’s win over Democrat Martha Coakley, that the Obama administration had been dealt a stern rebuke by the electorate.
“In many ways the campaign in Massachusetts became a referendum not only on health-care reform but also on the openness and integrity of our government process,” said Sen. Jim Webb, Virginia Democrat.
Sen. Evan Bayh, Indiana Democrat, speaking to ABC News, allowed that “whenever you have just the furthest left elements of the Democratic party attempting to impose their will on the rest of the country, that’s not going to work too well.”
Brown, in his victory speech, accused the White House of becoming “impatient with dissent.”
The Obama administration, which reached the White House in large part because they ran a campaign that listened to the liberal grassroots and utilized their efforts, says they have done nothing of the sort.
“We didn’t dismiss grassroots anger then or now,” said a senior White House official, adding that President Obama “acknowledged” voter discontent in his remarks while campaigning for Democrat Martha Coakley on Sunday in Boston.
“Our point at the time was that the cable TV commentators gravitated to the angry town halls and ignored the majority of congenial town halls that occurred,” the White House official said.
Gibbs said Tuesday that Obama himself “understands there is frustration out there and is frustrated himself.”
But if the Massachusetts race and the polls that have consistently shown strong opposition to Obama’s health-care reform are sounding alarms that Democrats should heed, it doesn’t appear that they are doing so.
“I don’t need the Massachusetts race to tell me the psyche of the American people. I just need to go to the grocery store,” said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Maryland Democrat. “People are angry. People are fearful. People are very concerned about where the economy is.”
“They know that things are not what they ought to be. Very frankly, they knew that in November of ’08, and they voted accordingly,” Hoyer said.
In essence, Democrats say that instead of a rebuke, the current political conditions constitute an echo of the mandate that swept them to power in 2006 and 2008. They insist that Massachusetts is not a referendum on the national healthcare plan, and that voters are angry about the economy in general.
“There is obviously a tremendous amount of upset and anger in this country about where we are economically. That’s not a surprise to us in this administration. In many ways we’re here because of that upset and anger,” Gibbs said.
Hoyer said that voters are angry primarily at the Republican party, because it is not going along with Democratic initiatives.
“What the public is angry about is they see an opposition for opposition’s sake,” Hoyer said, claiming that Democrats have tried to work with Republicans on healthcare reform.
Polls, however, have shown high levels of discontent with both Democrats and Republicans in Congress, and overall dissatisfaction with the president’s handling of health care and the economy.
Bayh warned that his party would incur an “even further catastrophe” if they ignored that “moderates and independents even in a state as Democratic as Massachusetts just aren’t buying our message.”
“If you lose Massachusetts and that’s not a wake-up call, there’s no hope of waking up,” Bayh said.
Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner, Ohio Republican, said, “the American people are screaming, ‘Stop’ at the top of their lungs, and out-of-touch Democratic leaders ignore them at their peril.”
Gibbs conceded that some anger has “an attachment” to the Obama administration, but blamed it on a “failing” by the White House and Democrats in general to convince the public that the health-care bill is in their best interest.
In addition, a White House official told Politico Monday that the political headwinds in Massachusetts and around the country “reinforces the conviction to fight hard.”
Liberals also content that much of the anger back in August, and some of it still, is being manipulated by advocacy groups such as FreedomWorks and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that receive money from corporate interests.
“The White House was correct to identify the tea party movement as being manufactured with loads of money and resources from corporate front groups who were mobilizing to defeat Obama’s agenda,” said Faiz Shakir, research director at the liberal Center for American Progress, who runs the ThinkProgress blog.
“I think everyone recognizes there’s anger and frustration at a time when people are losing their jobs and we’re dealing with multiple national crises. That anger was cynically manipulated by corporate groups with an ulterior agenda,” Shakir said.
But Kaufman argued that Americans in general do not like the look of huge spending bills being pushed by Democrats — the $787 billion stimulus, a cap-and-trade bill likely to increase energy prices for households and businesses and the $900 billion health-care bill — at a time when the country is running a deficit of more than $1 trillion and a national debt of more than $12 trillion.
“The White House is doing what they believe they were elected to do: change the way government is run. They believe they were elected to be a bigger more activist government to solve problems,” he said. “But they know change means angst, and voters are schizophrenic and want change but don’t want change.”
“They decided to spend capital, have a bad 2010 so that by 2012 everything is fixed. Where they’re wrong is the voter [in 2008] said we want to fire Bush and the Republican Congress for not doing what they said back in 1994,” Kaufman said, referring to the Contract with America, in which a new Republican majority in the House promised to reduce the size of government, lower taxes and give greater incentives to the private sector.